Clearing the air

Graduate assistant Austin Gray (from left), research associate Dr. Adwoa Commodore and Dr. John Pearce, assistant professor of environmental health at MUSC’s public health sciences department, check on the new fixed air monitoring site where they plan to take consistent measures of air pollutant. The site, located near the MUSC Urban Farm, will play an important role in establishing local temporal trends in our pollutants of interest and also form a basis for comparison when researchers take samples at other locations.  

Last fall, the World Health Organization estimated that 3.3 million people die prematurely each year from prolonged exposure to air pollution.

To put that into perspective, that’s more than the number who die from HIV and malaria combined.

The overwhelming majority of those deaths are in Asia, including 1.4 million in China, 654,000 in India and 110,000 in Pakistan. The United States ranked seventh on the list with 54,905 deaths.

In recent years, air pollution has not been a major problem in Charleston, other than the soot from cruise ships and odors from paper and chemical plants on the Cooper River. That’s due largely to prevailing sea breezes and a flat topography that doesn’t trap pollutants, as well as federal clean air regulations of the past 40 years.

But with the increasing population and traffic, more industry and a port expansion combined with air pollution-monitoring technology and notification systems, we may be hearing more about air pollution in the coming years.

Dr. Erik Svendsen, leader of MUSC’s division of environmental health for the public health services department, says while most people associate air pollution with China these days, it’s a growing problem around the world and the United States.

“A good way to get politicians interested in air pollution is to say it kills people and then they wake up and start doing something about it,” says Svendsen. “But (some people) are smart enough to know that if something is going to kill you, that it’s probably going to make you sick first.”

Svendsen is involved in Charleston Partners for Clean Air, a partnership of local and state interest groups that is working to study, safeguard and improve air quality.

Last month, the partnership, led by the Berkeley Charleston Dorchester Council of Governments, brought together academics, community leaders and business interests for an air quality conference.

Attendees included port and paper mill representatives, state forestry officials, minority community leaders, academics, health professionals and government officials.

The conference demonstrated that a lot more is going on in the area, with more monitoring, better technology, potentially ground-breaking research and an increased attention to local environmental justice issues, than the average resident may know.

Myra Reece, director of environment affairs with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, praised the collaboration in her keynote talk.

“Government plays a role in meeting the national ambient air standards, but we can do so much more through collaborative partnerships,” says Reece. “All of us have a vested interest in clean, healthy air in the Charleston area.”

Reece says the conference was an opportunity to “look for gaps and opportunities (for protecting and improving air quality) in the future,” she says.

She underscored that while the area is meeting air quality standards, it’s imperative to stay on top of it.

“We’ve seen air quality get cleaner and cleaner. The reason you may start hearing about air quality a lot now is that the standards continue to get more stringent. They will never be relaxed. Our strategy is to stay ahead of those standards and look for opportunities on the local level,” says Reece.

Svendsen echoed the need “to stay ahead of the regulations,” which the Environmental Protection Agency reviews every five years and factors in what’s been learned in science.

“Those (regulatory) changes are only going to get more and more stringent as we learn more about how these different pollutants affect the health of people. By having a proactive point of view and trying to get ahead of those changes, we can help prevent diseases (such as cancer, asthma and COPD) and the secondary effects of air pollution.”

Among the relatively new air quality experts in town is Dr. John Pearce, an assistant professor of environmental health at the public health sciences department at the Medical University of South Carolina.

Pearce, who arrived from Emory University in 2014, has been working to create an Air Quality Lab, located in a 600-square-foot space in the MUSC Darby Children’s Research Institute on Cannon Street. The laboratory includes an array of mobile, high-tech air pollution monitoring systems, which researchers intend to use in studies.

“Air pollution is a risk factor for several (health) outcomes,” says Pearce, noting the risks that population and industrial growth may have on local air quality. “We’re obviously concerned about it so we need to go out and measure and see what’s in our environment.”

Dr. Adwoa Commodore, a research associate, is dedicated to learning the monitoring systems.

Besides mobile monitors that detect particulates, nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants, the lab also has established a fixed air monitoring site near the MUSC Urban Farm, near the corner of Bee and President streets.

Pearce says that fixed site is where they plan to take consistent measures of particulate matter, select gases, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and ozone, and meteorological variables, including temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction and barometric pressure.

“This site plays an important role in establishing local temporal trends in our pollutants of interest and also forms a basis for comparison when we sample at other locations,” says Pearce.

Among the pollutants that the lab will be focused on is the less well-known “black carbon,” which the EPA describes as the “most strongly light-absorbing component of (fine) particulate matter” formed by the incomplete combustion of fossil fuels, biofuels and biomass.

“In the next few months, we plan to hit the ground running and start doing some pilot sampling around the Charleston area,” says Pearce. “We’re interested in looking at pollutant trends, both spatial and temporal, not just day to day. We’re really interested in pollutant trends throughout the region.

“We’re very interested in looking in communities, such as (communities in the Charleston Neck Area, near roadways and background sites such as Cape Romain (National Wildlife Refuge).”

With a strong research component, the state potentially can contribute to global science on air pollution.

One example revealed at the conference is work currently underway on potentially airborne antibiotics, which could contribute to antibiotic resistance, by Dr. Sean Norman, director of the University of South Carolina’s Molecular Microbial Ecology Lab.

Norman was with some graduate students doing some wastewater sampling work at the Charleston Water System’s Plum Island Wastewater Treatment Plant.

“I was looking out over that stuff (activated sludge) and I was watching the bubbles popping. I thought that was interesting,” says Norman, wondering if the “quite large” popping bubble could aerosolize microbes and launch antibiotics found in the material into the air.

After all, Norman says, scientists can identify dust from Saharan desert in the air here.

His concern, specifically, would be in how it contributes with a growing international health worry of antibiotic resistance.

“Antibiotics are not like traditional contaminants, which if you dilute them, to a degree, it’s less of a problem. With the antibiotics, it’s the opposite. If you dilute the antibiotic, it becomes more of an issue because microbes can survive in the presence of the antibiotic and then generate mutations and become resistant to the antibiotic,” says Norman.

While Norman notes that antibiotic resistance is not a man-made phenomenon, the quantities entering the environment is making it more of an issue about how fast resistance is occurring.

“All this genetic material is being released in the environment. Microbes will pick up the DNA and insert it into their genetic material, and if it provides some advantage to them, they’ll keep it and start expressing it.”

The study of the potential threat, however, is in its earliest stages.

“How do we deal with this? First of all, is there a risk? How far do they (microbes) travel? These are questions that I’ll need to continue to partner with air quality people to answer,” he says.

Reach David Quick at 937-5516.